Does God “respect” our freedom?

One often finds the following proposition asserted: God has created humanity as free beings and has thus bound himself not to interfere with their free decisions and choice. Divine agency and human agency are conceived as mutually exclusive. In one form or another we find this proposition commonly advanced in discussions of synergism, providence, theodicy, and eternal damnation. Please raise your hand if you have invoked the principle yourself.

The underlying image is that of a stage. God has created the stage and the human players, yet once having created them, he stands back, as it were, and lets the players live out their lives in freedom. But there is a problem here. The image is deistic. It forgets that not only has God created both the stage and players, but at every moment he is conferring existence upon them. In some sense, therefore, God must be the ultimate author of free human decisions and actions. If he weren’t, they wouldn’t exist at all. God neither respects nor interferes with our free actions; he creates them. Think upon that for more than a few seconds. Think long enough and you may even find yourself entertaining a theory of double agency.

If we take the creatio ex nihilo seriously, we will find ourselves wrestling with all sorts of challenging, perhaps intractable, problems. Hugh McCann discusses some of them in this interview with Robert Kuhn.

Dr McCann is the author of Creation and the Sovereignty of God and The Works of Agency.

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30 Responses to Does God “respect” our freedom?

  1. The real nugget behind McMann’s proposal only comes in at the end – where he states that there are no “de re modalities.” Reminds me of where Aquinas says somewhere in the Summa (I think on the section on providence) that “contingency and necessity are consequent upon being.”

    This also reminds me of a letter from CS Lewis where he contrasts contingency and necessity this way: “Both the statement that our final destination is already settled and the view that it still may be either Heaven or Hell, seem to me to imply the ultimate reality of Time, which I don’t believe in. The controversy is one I can’t join on either side for I think that in the real (Timeless) world it is meaningless. In great haste. CS Lewis”

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  2. Of course, if McMann is right and our modal distinctions really DO collapse (i.e. if they are just subjective illusions), then it becomes impossible to call God a “necessary” being.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Malcolm, perhaps you could explain for us precisely what de re modalities are and why you believe that the denial of them makes it impossible to call God a necessary being.

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      • Fr. Aidan,

        I take McMann’s view to be essentially this (I am putting it in my own words): what we mean by the words “contingent” and “necessary” do not really describe reality or God as they really are. They are only our brains throwing out experiential and psychological feelings onto the unknowable. We can’t say it was “necessary” that such and such occur, nor that it was “contingent” since these words imply a true metaphysical distinction, which cannot exist in God’s mind if he is in fact absolutely simple, actus purus, and existing outside of time.

        Now this doesn’t work for me because I DO think there is a distinction between these metaphysical terms. And, more than that, if we in fact say the distinction itself is only mental (i.e. it is only a subjective illusion), I don’t see how we can call God a “necessary being” nor ourselves “contingent beings.” The words necessary and contingent in each case do not modify “beings” in any meaningful sense, since they do not accurately describe reality.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          I am not sure if McMann position is one of pure equivocation.

          But be it is as it may, the fruitful way to approach this subject is by means of an analogical understanding of secondary causes.

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  3. brian says:

    I am unable to look at the video due to unfortunately having to work. If I can find the energy and well-being, I’m going to try another go at these issues. I think there’s no doubt that it is a mistake to posit human freedom against divine freedom as mutually exclusive. Indeed, somewhere Hart talks about some sense in which the Last Judgment is a necessary (for us) vindication of God’s Goodness precisely because God is the bottom line as the Source and continuing ground of all being. Yet all this is complicated by the equivocities in the varying concepts of freedom, nature, person, and will. These are by no means stable or univocal concepts; further, these concepts bear histories that are narrated, so the story that they are embedded within should be scrutinized. In the modern era, concepts are either banished to an historicism that makes universal assertions untenable or conversely placed in an ahistorical, abstract void that effectively allows the user to instrumentalize them for utilitarian ends whilst avoiding any discussion or even awareness of the implicit, but forgotten or evasive narrative that allowed them to effect human imagination and action.

    Many theological difficulties ensue from imprecise definitions or the use of concepts whose metaphysics are contrary to that of the gospel. Anyway, none of this can be tersely articulated, but in general it seems to me that the standard arguments are too narrow and often doomed from the outset because tied to modern or occasionally classical conceptions that do not take in the radical novelty that Christian revelation enacts upon prior definitions of those concepts.

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  4. Tom says:

    How does Orthodoxy avoid occasionalism? Or does it want to?

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    • brian says:

      I can’t speak for Orthodoxy, but Thomas recognizes secondary causality. Creatures are genuine causes, but it comes down to analogy again. I think its right to identify God with Being, but if one has a univocal understanding of Being, it might be better to say that God is beyond Being or even that God does not exist because He is not circumscribed by our creaturely experience of these terms. Likewise, to identify God with cause has its difficulties. In some sense, one might say that Creation is “beyond cause” if one largely thinks of causality as limited to efficient and material causality (which is what the modern mind does.) Occasionalism appears to me a confusion that does not properly think the transcendence of God. With Malebranche, its hard to see how it differs from pantheism.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Brian, I don’t think that employing the language of causality when speaking of God’s creative relationship to creatures is any more problematic than the language of creating and making. We simply need to make the appropriate apophatic and analogical qualifications. I can see the value of speaking of God as beyond cause or beyond being or beyond everything, but we are still confronted with the mystery that at this moment everything is being “created” by God. Perhaps a millennium ago this was obvious to Christians, but today I suspect we tend to fall back into a default deism.

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        • brian says:

          Yes, I agree, but as I hinted above, the modern mind has a very narrow notion of causality. One necessarily must get beyond that conception which tends to get trapped within an immanent horizon.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I suspect, Tom, that occasionalism only becomes a pressing question when one has grasped the significance of the creatio ex nihilo. At that point the theological temptation is to collapse creaturely causality into the divine causality. What is needed is a non-competitive understanding of divine causality that grounds and enables genuine creaturely causality and freedom. Aquinas appears to have made the decisive contribution on this topic.

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  5. brian says:

    Ah, “somewhere Hart”, not somewhat. I’m under the weather and less than sharp. Otherwise, I blame Tom.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Yes Brian. What you are pointing to is what is missing from the conversation: teleology, viz. that protology and eschatology are necessarily and indissolubly connected. Or, in other words, the first cause is determined by the final cause. Or yet in still other words, creatio ex nihilo is a moral claim about God.

      But in any case, we must blame Tom. 🙂

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  6. Steven says:

    On the one hand, I see the strength of your argument, Fr. Kimel. On the other, to speak of God as “creating” our actions comes close to the age-old objection to Calvinism, namely that it makes God the author of sin. Furthermore, in Scripture God is seen numerous objecting to what people do, commanding them to act otherwise, etc. To my mind, this militates against the idea that God has complete control over what people do, as would seem to be implied by the language of his creating our actions. What do you think?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You raise a critical point, Steven. Catholic Christianity must always reject the assertion that God is the author of sin, which is one reason why, I think, that theologians have spoken of evil as a privation. God wills only the good–privation is not a good; it’s the absence of good.

      But the various attempts to escape from the immediacy of God’s creative act nevitably end in some kind of practical deism or process theism, with God assuming the role of spectator or co-creator of unfolding history. Something like Austin Farrer’s theory of double agency at least states the mystery of divine providence and secondary causality, even though it does not explain it.

      Take a look at this long citation from McCann. Personally, I find McCabe more helpful on this than McCann, but I’m grateful for any help I can get. 🙂

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  7. Ignatius says:

    I think it helps to consider freedom as the will united to God, and so our truly free decisions (that are created by God) are not predetermined, but come straight from eternity, and so are simultaneous with all things.

    I think we also tend to consider eternity wrongly as being beforehand. But if we can be united to God, then we can be united to Eternity, and so Eternity is just as much after as before, and not inaccessible, as is also shown by our ability to influence God through prayer. St. Anselm said that God’s Eternity is God Himself, in which case we’re not generally apophatic enough when we speak about “eternity”, and speculate about God’s point of view.

    There doesn’t need to be any conflict between God’s Sovereignty and our freedom, because the decision is made by us in God and God in us, a union that does no violence, but fulfils our nature (like the hypostatic union).

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Here are two long passage from McCann that might help to push the conversation along:

    Although God’s creative fiat provides entirely for the existence of our decisions and actions, then, they are not brought to pass deterministically, even from on high. It is as Aquinas says: God, the primary agent, is able to provide for the existence of our own exercises of agency in accordance with our voluntary nature, in a way that does us no violence, and not only fully respects but actually founds our autonomy. The proper metaphor for understanding the relation between God’s action and ours is not that of the puppeteer to his puppet, but rather that of the author of a novel to her characters. The author does not belong to the world she creates, nor do her characters and their actions exist as an event-causal consequence of anything she does. Rather, their first existence is in her creative imagination, and they are born and sustained in and through the very thoughts in which she conceives them, and of which they are the content. The interesting thing about this relationship is that it is too close to permit the author’s creative activity to damage her characters’ freedom. On the contrary, it is perfectly legitimate for her to present them as free and responsible beings. Indeed, it is not even possible for the author to enter into the world of the novel and interact with her characters in such a way as to undermine or pervert their integrity as agents. Only other characters in the novel can do that—subject, of course, to the will of the author.

    As I see it, our relation to our creator is much the same. We, of course, have more than a mental existence; we are real. But we too are brought to be and sustained in being entirely in and through our creator’s will. We are not self-creating in any way, and we can no more engage in decision and action apart from our creator’s will than can the creatures of fiction. God does not, in creating us, act upon us, or produce any intervening cause, even an act of will on his part, that somehow makes us do what we do. There is indeed an exercise of his creative power, but in it he simply becomes the ground of our being, holding us in existence as the content of his creative act. God does not, that is to say, alter our nature or that of our actions merely by providing for our existence. This, I claim, permits all that legitimately belongs to responsible freedom to characterize our actions, just as it does those of fictional creatures. The author of the novel never makes her creatures do something; she only makes them doing it. It is the same with us and God. He does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present. To think otherwise is to confuse providing for the existence of something and tampering with its nature. Nor should God’s action as creator lead us to worry about our integrity as agents—about whether we will turn out to have a substantive and genuine moral character, or will come across as contrived and manipulated, as somehow lacking a true and unified moral self. There is no reason to expect the latter outcome, especially when an all-wise and powerful God is producing the work. Bad authors may sometimes have to manipulate their characters; a perfect one never does. (pp. 106-108)

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  9. Tom says:

    Thanks for the comments. Always helpful.

    I appreciate the cautionary presence of apophaticism. I don’t think God is reducible to every either/or option defined by the law of non-contradiction. But it’s also very easy to use God’s being ‘off the map’ as an opportunity to say things which ought not to be said, things we feel empowered to say because, well, God’s transcendent after all and that encourages us to make theological claims in the name of mystery.

    I’m perfectly happy with saying God creates the universe, and he always gives it being, and that (as Fr Aidan says) “in a sense” this means ultimately all created states are a kind of effect of God’s sustaining presence. But it is also true to say that “in a sense” the created agencies God empowers have an integrity to them, that they are a sharing of “say-so” about what the world happens to look like. So let apophaticism hold the reins with BOTH hands, that is, let us affirm BOTH that God continually sustains and that occassionalism really is false as opposed to being ruled out of bounds for even discussing because, again, that term draws a kind of circle that God doesn’t fit into. Well, EVERY term draws the same circle, and we don’t mind using terms drawn from one and the same well to rule occassionalism not applicable in theological discourse, on the one hand, while ruling terms like ‘create’, ‘sustain’, and phrases like ‘in a sense’ attributable to God.

    There are plenty of Calvinist (and Reformed) folk who hold very strongly to traditional views of transcendence and defend ‘determinism’ as right and rational (partly on the grounds that) precisely because God is transcendent we shouldn’t think that the divine, unconditional determinism of God’s eternal decree is anything like what humans imagine when they think of ‘determining outcomes’. So no contradiction or inconsistency is generated by God’s unconditional decree. Same goes for the moral terms whose intelligibility DBH fought to defend against arguments for the moral intelligibility of eternal damnation on the same grounds (namely, the determinist’s claim that if all our terms fail to capture the truth about God, then so must our moral terms; and we shouldn’t expect ‘eternal damnation’ to satisfy our moral categories since God isn’t a member of those categories).

    You see the problem. We seem willing enough to lean into the implication of the meaning of our moral terms and place all the weight upon them we require to deny an eternal hell. I guess what I’m suggesting is that denying occasionalism is no more prohibited by divine transcendence of causal terms as is denying an eternal hell prohibited by God’s transcendence of moral terms. If it’s true that “in a sense” God is ultimately the source of all created states, it’s also true that “in a sense” creatures are sustained by God in their capacity to realize evil that God does not will even if he sustains us in the exercise of our capacities for choice. All this talk of “in a sense” straddles the distinction AND the intimacy between divine and created being.

    I still like Scotus by the way (to little I’m understanding him).

    Tom

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Tom,

      It seems to me this all depends on how one approaches the subject of transcendence – the problems arise upon univocal or equivocal predication. It is one of the reasons I find that apophatic theology is less than desirable for it presumes univocal predication, and univocal predication comes with its own attendant problems (such as you describe). Moreove, apophatic theology tends towards radical equivocation, vacating all meaning such that ‘God’, ‘love’, ‘goodness’ have lost their meaning (God then, or love, or goodness, may mean something categorically contrary to our understanding of these signifiers). I hope that addresses your quandary.

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      • Tom says:

        Thank you, Robert. I agree it’s entirely related to our understanding of transcendence.

        I suppose part of my struggle has to do with rightly prioritizing what we think transcendence is with how we believe theological language functions (or ought to function); i.e., in which direction should one move, FROM a commitment to a certain view of transcendence TO how language then must function, or FROM language to transcendence? Sometimes I get the sense from some that we first accept certain undeniable givens about the meaningfulness of language and then work out concluding what transcendence means. From others I sense the opposite move, i.e., transcendence has to mean A, B, and C and on that basis let’s now see how that impacts language.

        That said, I’m confused by your reply. On the one hand “…apophatic theology presumes univocal predication.” On the other, “apophatic theology tends towards radical equivocation.”

        Which is it – univocal or equivocal?

        Tom

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Tom, negative theology is a necessity due to univocal predication, apophaticisicm is an equivocation of univocation. For example, the assertion that, ‘God is exists’ taken univocally will need to be followed by the apophatic qualifier that ‘God does not exist.’ This qualifier empties the meaning of ‘existence’, vacating it of meaningful signification – if God does not exist like creaturely being, then what may this ‘existence’ signify? Taken univocally as such, ‘existence’ denotes ‘no existence’. The same problematic arises across the whole spectrum of theo-logizing, the difficulty is no less an acute issue for transcendence as it is for immanence; existence, being, etc.

          The root of the problem is not priority or ‘direction’ of language, but rather predication. Analogous predication based on similarity within an ever greater dissimilarity avoids equivocation of meaning, and facil epistemological formulations of ‘what is known’ and ‘what is not known’. For example – it is said (it is a mantra for many) that the works/energies of God are known (univocally presumably), but God’s essence is unknown. This is not supported by Scripture – God’s works and working are as mysteriously dissimilar to our works than God’s essence is to creaturely essence. Scripture is also quite clear that in beholding the Son we know the Father, God is truly revealed, unreservedly, personally, in His works and who He is, the eternal God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 1:3-4 “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness….so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature.” There is no hidden essence different from Who has been revealed. Univocal theo-logizing however would lead us to understand that there is a part or aspect of God which is known, and another part of God which is not.

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  10. brian says:

    In the West, analogical predication went along with an understanding of Creation as Cosmos. Cosmos indicates the sustaining, perduring presence of God, without which the creature would no longer continue to exist. The proper understanding of transcendence established the intimacy of God to his creatures. Further, the essence of each creature was then properly understood to participate in the Logos. Creatures were inherently message bearing, their qualia were both a communication of unique being and a pointing beyond (analogically) to the Goodness of the Creator. The world itself is experienced as a theophany. There is an in-built semiotic whereby as one grows in wisdom one is increasingly able to discern the symbolic richness of reality. Beyond this, the ontological meaningfulness of the world ultimately points to a free, perfect, pleromatic Being that exceeds the speaking capacity of the world itself. Coming to understand the world, man recognizes that he is both the active speech of created being, but also always already receptive, the bearer of gift, a creature whose very being is gift. Revelation must be understood within this context.

    A shift occurs with the rise of nominalism. There may be other places to read this genealogy, but this is a commonly identified moment of crisis. Unlike Aquinas, who understood God as Pure Act whose aseity contained ultimate richness, Ockham is more interested in Possibilities. Like a modern, he thinks the world that was not created is somehow larger and more interesting than the actual world. He therefore thinks of becoming as more attractive and more demonstrative of power than being. More important for the purposes of this exposition, he exhibits a kind of antipathy for substantial form. Modern singularity as an empirical individual is now understood as the place where the really real is encountered. Universals are just concepts and not ontological. When the form drops out, so does the vertical dimension and the ontological understanding of creation as symbol bearing. One begins to see the advent of the modern subject, for whom the “outside world” is a quantifiable object without intrinsic meaning. Power is now largely confined to efficient causality. When the moderns think God as cause, they have a deist conception in mind. It is possible then to imagine an extrinsic relation between the “watch” and the “watchmaker.” No longer is the intimate, sustaining presence of God recognized.

    The alienation implicit in a subject-object dualism has a trajectory that easily concludes in utilitarian usefulness. The Cosmos is now Nature, a collection of isolated objects whose only relations are extrinsic, made up of adventitious connections in time and space. Community and association is now secondary and elective — or in the case of non-rational nature — an inventory reduced to the pragmatic considerations of human commerce. There is no deep understanding of Creation as an expression of love, of continuing Gift, or of God committing himself to the good outcome of his Creation. Nor is there an understanding of Originary Community, whereby the flourishing of the unique is made possible by the flourishing of All. Creation reduced to Nature, Community reduced to Option and Freedom reduced to “Choice” entails from a radical rethinking of God and divine Freedom. Now, God’s freedom is like modern “freedom from” constraint. God is free to walk away, to abjure his creation. Freedom is radical elasticity; the stark nihilism of voluntarism and it’s absolute freedom of command unrestricted by any given arises. The hyper-Augustinian notions of the Reformation tend to draw from this altered scenario. Hence, the language is rooted in a rejection of participation in Logos, a imaginary that has altered Cosmos to Nature.

    Where does Scotus’ univocity come into play in all this? The older, “Platonic” understanding required a hierarchy, a distance between eternal being and creaturely being. The even more radical transcendence implied by creatio ex nihilo deepened awareness that crossing the distance of transcendence was always made possible by an act of love “from the side of the eternal.” Recollect that analogy is the acknowledgement in language of this unique complex of transcendence-intimacy. By treating the being of God and the being of creatures as comprehended by a single plane, one seemingly draws God and creatures closer, but paradoxically, one has rendered them further apart. God’s connection to his creatures is now along the lines of natural theology, the First Cause of a supreme being; at the same time, the “mathematical” infinity that now understands God univocally as an intensification of the creaturely being we encounter strangely produces a form of apophatic nihilism. Language about God is rendered fatally suspect. The irrational equivocality of Ockham’s reconsideration of divine freedom reflects the loss of analogical purchase on concepts like Goodness that would allow the believer to rest secure that our understanding of Goodness was not subject to a radical revision when it comes to God.

    If power is extrinsic, if nature is inert object, if language is both univocal and therefore God is equivocal, revelation itself becomes an empty signifier. Ultimately, to preach such a revelation is a form of will-to-power; the content no longer a gift from divine love, but a cipher filled by an anthropology abandoned to a cold universe where one projects and constructs meaning rather than discerns a love letter embedded in the very being of the other.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      I was just going to write that, but you beat me to it! 🙂
      Well put Brian, thank you for that.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Brian,

      It seems to me a certain ‘poetic’ intuition comes into the foreground. Mystery is everywhere, but so is revelation. There is no easy dividing line where the cataphatic ends and the apophatic starts. Sure, it would be easier if delineations were binary, but this seems an enduring reductionary tempation to idolatry. The richness of God’s theophanic revelation imbued into the fabric of the cosmos, and the message-bearing openness of creaturely existence can not, indeed should not, be reduced to simplistic, void-of-meaning constructions.

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  11. brian says:

    You touch on the center of poetics, Robert. One can distinguish grace from nature, but the actual cosmos we reside in is always suffused with grace. The infinite depths of God are gifted to the creature, so that wonder is not only at the beginning of knowledge. Wonder accompanies knowledge and increases with it. Genuine gnosis is identical to love. Apart from love, all perception becomes idolatry. The subject that must project all meaning onto a valueless world of objects eventually narrows and narrows until the lonely ego founders in an empty solitude devoid of encounter, novelty, event. A univocal sameness presides, or meaningless equivocity, a flux without fruition in an end, or a selfish dialectic that loses the real by seeking to assimilate everything by dominating and possessing. For those who see with Christ, however, even this barren abyss is somehow opened up, for Holy Saturday alludes to the hidden companionship of God. All the sophistry and bad art of rebellion is preemptively countered by the victory of the Lamb of God. Even when his most wayward children find themselves in a state of apparently permanent muteness because closed in upon themselves and cut off from the pluriform voices of the Cosmos, they are unable to secure a perfect isolation, for always already the deepest center of the soul is the gift of the agapeic God, the most forlorn and dead quiet embraced by the Silence that since the music of being.

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  12. brian says:

    Ahh, I was rushed before posting the last comment. “. . . the Silence that sings the music of being.”

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